Virgoan Chieftain’s Daughter, Atienna Imamu
They were arguing again.
Atienna watched them as they slammed their fists against the tablecloth and pointed their utensils at each other’s throats. Despite their raised voices, they did not draw the eyes of those seated around them. It was difficult to hear anyone in this large dining hall, after all. The clay walls that rose around them ended in an arch above their heads. It was an arch that threw back their voices tenfold. A whisper became a shout. A pleasant comment, a booming exclamation.
Needless to say, with the ten families lining the long white table to her left and another ten families to her right, the entire room was filled with an almost headache-inducing cacophony. Paired alongside the idle words of conversation were the clicks and clacks of spoons against porcelain bowls and knives against clay plates.
Atienna glanced back down at the book she’d hidden under the cloth. It rested on her lap, open, beckoning her to delve into its pages once more. One more page, it said. If not that, one more paragraph. Or one more sentence.
It was difficult to read in this dimly lit hall. The only light present came from the streams of vitae that ran parallel along the floors beside the wall. At the bank of the rivers of light grew vibrant star-shaped flowers and twisting vines. Atienna knew that these rivers ran out from the building to a large vitae pool outside. The streams continued out from this pool and stretched into a river reaching all the way to their neighboring country of Gemini.
Legend had it that their Ancestor, Virgo, had purposefully built the dining hall around the vitae streams. For what reason? Atienna wondered quite often. Perhaps it was to not disturb the natural order of things. Or perhaps it was for something else.
“What do we look like now that we’ve chosen to do nothing?!”
Atienna slowly lifted her gaze up to her brother who sat across from her. Despite the brightly woven and beautifully patterned yellow and green formal robes he wore, he looked anything but elegant and courtly. His eyes were wide and irate, his dark skin glistening with sweat.
“The Sagittarians were our allies during the Reservoir War! How can you agree with the Council’s decision to deny their request for aid?”
“You just said it! We were allies during the war! The war is over!” the young woman beside him snapped, shaking her head so hard that her high, cone-shaped headdress nearly fell straight off her head. “You want to support another war effort?!”
“It’s not a war effort!” An aggravated sigh. “They’re trying to avoid being pulled into those skirmishes between Capricorn and Aquarius. They only seek peace and to protect their people.”
“So, you would have us risk our own people for theirs?”
A pause. “You have no heart, Safiyah!”
“You have no head, Bachiru.”
And then Safiyah and Bachiru laid their eyes on her.
Atienna shut her book and awaited the full brunt of their words. The storm of breathless shouts. The demands. And come the words did.
“Atienna, talk some sense into your brother!” Safiyah pressed, swinging her fork in Bachiru’s direction. “He’s been hanging around Usian for far too long. That man has clouded your brother’s empty head with foolishness!”
“Atienna,” Bachiru retorted, fending her fork off with a fork of his own, “talk some sense into your friend! She knows nothing of empathy or sympathy! She has sold her heart to some devil!”
Atienna glanced between them and waited a beat. She could hear their heavy panting amidst the lull in heated conversation.
“Bachiru,” she addressed her brother first, “if you feel so strongly about this, why don’t you take it to the Council instead of wearing yourself out here? Our father is a chieftain on the Council, isn’t he? Is it not better to speak to him about these things?”
Bachiru opened his mouth to retort, and Safiyah did as well. Their faces were creased with confusion. She could read their thoughts like the pages from her book—‘whose side was she on?’
“Safiyah,” she addressed her friend next. “The Council has already made their decision, and it’s a decision that coincides with your beliefs. And you and I both know that Bachiru is too stubborn to ever change his opinion.” She smiled gently, almost sheepishly. “Forgive me, but I’m having a hard time understanding exactly why this argument is happening to begin with. You’ve disagreed about this subject with members from other tribes, but I’ve never seen you reach this level of anger.” After a pause, her smile turned impish. “Unless there’s another reason for this…”
Their brows furrowed with confusion and then rose with realization. They tried a glance in each other’s direction but paused halfway, settling back into their chairs and busily shoving their mouths with the spiced rice, jerky, and mashed yam.
Offering an even more impish smile, Atienna gently opened her book on her lap again and thanked the server as he came over to refill her glass with wine. She lifted the glass up to her lips and took a sip as she turned the page. The next chapter. Finally.
That was odd.
The words were a bit hard to read. Fuzzy. Out of focus.
Now, everything seemed out of focus. The noise around her. The movements of her brother and friend across the table. Her own movements.
The wine glass slipped from her fingertips and shattered onto the floor in a great explosion of red, translucent petals. She followed it to the ground a moment after. As she lay cold on her back, she blinked up at the archways in confusion and studied the intricate designs carved there centuries ago. The archways, in turn, echoed back the shouts of alarm from those seated around her.
Dark faces ringed around her like a halo. The lights cast by the streams of vitae twisted shadows across those faces in a way that made them look foreign, strange.
Beside her, the wine bled into the pages of her book.
Ophiuchian Peacekeeper, Jericho
“If I were in charge, I would have you relieved of duty.”
Jericho blinked at the woman who sat across from him. He’d heard many stories about her. How her square-rimmed glasses did nothing to hide her ice-blue eyes ‘that could rip out your soul.’ How the tapping of her perfectly manicured nails ‘could drive even the strongest-willed Conductor insane.’ How her Librish accented voice ‘could shake down the very walls of Taurus’s renowned fortress of a capital city.’
Alice Kingsley. The Ice Gate of Ophiuchus.
And now that he’d had the opportunity to sit before her twenty-five times now, he could confirm the stories as true.
“I think you’re too dangerous. Too unstable,” she continued evenly. Her Librish lilt resounded around the white walls of the office and made the room seem larger than it already was. “But I doubt you even care about what I think.”
“I care,” he responded automatically. He pushed up his square glasses. “I care a lot. About what you think.”
“Spare me the façade. We’ve been through this already, Jericho.” Alice waved her hand as she rifled through the papers in front of her. “I study people for a living. And I see you for who you are.” She paused, lowered her papers, peered over them. Her eyes bore into him, digging, searching.
It almost felt as if she could hear his thoughts.
“But I doubt you care about that either.” She returned her attention to her papers, flipped through several more of them before she stacked them neatly on the table in front of her. “You’ve passed the psych evaluation the department has provided, and there’s nothing I can do about what’s been written.”
“So, you’ll be dispatched to the Capricornian-Aquarian border. There’s been an ongoing dispute around Gradstal, which is a town that connects the two countries. A large group of Sagittarian merchants who were using the trade route connecting the three countries were caught up in the conflict and are being detained within Capricornian borders. The Sagittarian royalty submitted their request for intervention a week ago, but with all the paperwork and politics, we haven’t been able to get to them until now. As expected, they’re calling attention from other nations. I don’t have to tell you how tense this issue is. Your train leaves in two hours.”
Jericho blinked. “I thought…”
“You would be dispatched to handle the ELPIS issue?” Alice gave one dry, chuckle. “Unfortunately, you know that only ELPIS Department handles those cases”
There was a long stretch of silence. But she did not speak.
“Jericho, you can leave now.” Her voice came out gently for once. It startled him out of his stiffness.
“Okay.” Jericho nodded. He rose to a stand, walked through the glass door behind him, and exited into the hall.
The hall itself was littered with Ophiuchian agents streaming back and forth between the rooms dotting the walls. All in black-and-white suits with a white sash around their arms, like him.
There had been a large number of cases opened these past few months. So many that closing one case meant immediately opening another. Last month he’d handled four cases himself. And here was another one. Not the one that he wanted.
Posted on the wall of the main lobby was a large map of the Signum continent. The continent was almost perfectly circular featuring Aries to the north, Virgo to the east, Capricorn to the south, and Scorpio to the west. At the very center of the ring of twelve countries was the city-state of Ophiuchus. A spot alongside the border that Capricorn shared with Aquarius was circled in red. Only a couple clicks to the north was the trade route running from Sagittarius, through Capricorn and Aquarius, to Pisces. Part of this route was also circled. Vitae reservoirs were marked on the map with a blue star, while locations of ELPIS attacks were marked with an X.
He bit the inside of his lip before he turned down the hall, made several more turns, and pressed out the entrance of the building. Sunlight met his eyes. As did the light from the vitae reservoir that glowed several miles away. Even from this distance with an entire strip of buildings between them, he could feel the warmth of it on his skin. Warmer than the sun. It painted the long, marble staircase just below him in a blinding white.
His stomach churned, and he placed a hand over his belly. He turned his eyes away from the light, and his stomach settled. When he closed his eyes, he felt right again. He paused and thought. Would it be unreasonable to walk down the stairs with his eyes shut like this? He had done it a handful of times before. He’d always made it down with success.
A breath of air tickled the back of his neck, drawing him away from his thoughts. The breath came with a whisper: “Traitor.”
Something pressed against his back. No, something pushed against his back.
His eyes snapped open in time to see a flash of white marble beneath him.
The momentum was too great. He couldn’t right himself.
His head cracked down on the step first. Then came the rest of his body. Down he rolled—each crack of limb against marble signaling another tumble forward.
It seemed as if he’d been rolling for an hour before he finally hit the bottom. He immediately tried to stand, but his limbs wouldn’t allow it. His arms were broken, it seemed.
He threw a furtive glance up at the top of the staircase just in time to see a shadow recede back into the building. Then, he was alone.
He would not succumb to this, he knew. He clenched his fists tightly in the red that pooled around him. Not until he’d done it. Not until then. He would not let go.
Then again, what was this?